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Noem: Protect the vulnerable, but respect anti-maskers

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In just the last few days, North Dakota, Iowa, and the city of Sioux Falls have implemented mask mandates to slow the spread of COVID-19, while officials in Rapid City plan to soon consider such a measure.

However, Gov. Kristi Noem has once again made it clear that there will be no statewide mandate for South Dakota.

“I don’t believe I have the authority to mandate [masks], and people can make their own personal decisions when it comes to masks,” Noem said during a Wednesday news conference at the State Capitol in Pierre. “I don’t want to approach a policy or a mandate just looking to do something to make people feel good. I want to do good, and actually put forward provisions that make a difference for families.”

Every community in South Dakota has flexibility to make different decisions regarding masks and COVID restrictions, and “that’s what some of these local leaders are doing and reacting to what some people in the community want,” she said.

Sioux Falls’ new mask mandate, which goes into effect Saturday, will not require any enforcement, which Noem said merely makes it a “suggestion.”

Noem said she wears a mask “when it is appropriate,” but that some members of the media “aren’t giving the full facts” when it comes to mask wearing. She said there is “no consistency” on data surrounding mask mandates that proves they slow the spread of disease.

“Some have said that my refusal to mandate masks is the reason why our cases are rising here in the state of South Dakota, and that is not true. Others have said that my refusal to advance harsh restrictions like lockdowns is another reason why our cases are rising, and that is also not true,” Noem said.

Noem went on to say that 41 states have some form of mask mandate, yet cases are rising in 39 of those states.

She also took issue with a report that claimed South Dakota is the worst in the world” for COVID right now, saying “that is absolutely false.”

Noem said the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center website shows there are other states with far higher new confirmed cases per 100,000 people compared to South Dakota. South Dakota is also below the national average mortality rate for COVID, she said. Noem said South Dakota has the seventh-lowest fatality rate in the country for COVID, “meaning we are doing a great job taking care of people.”

This, however, seems to conflict with data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As of Wednesday, the CDC showed South Dakota with 161.1 COVID infections per 100,000 residents for the last seven days. https://covid.cdc.gov/covid-data-tracker/#cases_casesper100klast7days. The federal agency shows that only North Dakota has a higher rate of infection, while the national average for the past week is 48.8.

Noem reminded South Dakotans of “common-sense steps” to slow the spread of COVID, the number one recommendation being to wash your hands. She did not cite wearing a mask, despite it being part of the CDC’s recommendations.

Noem said that over the course of the pandemic, it has become clear “there is a vulnerable population that we absolutely have to protect,” and that people should take extra precautions to do so. Ninety-seven percent of people who have died of COVID in South Dakota had an underlying medical condition.

“Practice good hygiene, stay home when you’re sick, and make sure you’re extra special careful around that vulnerable population that should need hospital care if they were to catch the virus,” Noem said.

She said that since the beginning of the pandemic, she has provided South Dakotans with the data and the science, and has continued to do so.

“I’m going to continue to trust South Dakotans to make wise and well-informed decisions for them and for their families. I’m also reiterating my request that we all continue to show each other respect and understand for everybody who makes choices that we may or may not agree with,” Noem said. “I ask that we all trust each other and remember that we are all human beings working to get through this challenge together.”

Noem made multiple calls for mutual respect, citing her increasing concern about how neighbors aren’t treating one another compassionately in their communities.

“You may choose to wear a mask and be concerned about the virus, and if people are scared I’m going to remind them they should stay home. But if people choose not to, we still should treat them with respect and understand they’re making a personal decision, and if we don’t want to be around them, we have the opportunity not to do that as well,” Noem said.

Noem said that the state has facilitated helping vulnerable people who cannot leave their homes and that the state has been working with different groups to ensure those populations can still get groceries and take care of other errands.

While Noem did not cite any specific programs during the conference, spokesman Ian Fury said that the Aging and Disability Resource Center Dakota at Home, as well as several economic assistance programs through the Department of Social Services, can help vulnerable populations get the help they need.

However, these programs are only specified to help those at higher risk of disease, not those who make a personal decision to stay home due to fear of exposure.

“I’m just asking folks to work together and treat each other as neighbors instead of creating division in our communities,” Noem said.

Noem said South Dakota has focused “a lot” of time and effort on protecting vulnerable populations by focusing on hospital capacity and ramping up testing efforts. Noem addressed the state’s vulnerable populations who have been isolated from their loved ones.

“I want you to know that our heart breaks for you, and that we think of you and are hopeful that soon we will get to a point where we have a vaccine to give us an opportunity to reunite you with your families. We are here in this fight with you and we are going to get through this together,” Noem said.

Currently, approximately 58,000 COVID tests are conducted every day in South Dakota during the month of November, and there have been mass testing initiatives for tribal communities, within the Department of Corrections, and in 11 communities across the state. Hospitals are reporting 33% availability for hospital beds.

Noem thanked health care workers that have been doing “incredible work” taking care of COVID patients, educators for filling in and “getting kiddos the education they need,” farmers who are putting in long hours with less workers, truck drivers stocking shelves, small business owners “doing incredible things in unique ways” to provide for their communities, as well as “so many unnamed South Dakotans” that are taking care of one another.

“People are tired of this virus. They are exhausted. We all are,” Noem said. “We all need to remember that our greatest enemy is the virus, and we can tackle this together.”

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